Mo Zhixu, July 1, 2016
2016 is also an election year in China, in case you are not aware of it.
A struggle is once again brewing in Wukan. Four years ago, after a protracted struggle during which village representative Xue Jinbo (薛锦波) lost his life under mysterious circumstances in police custody, the people of Wukan were able to elect a village leader that they trusted. But several years later, they still haven’t been able to win back their rights and things have again become unsettled. Police recently detained Lin Zulian (林祖恋), the elected head of Wukan’s village committee, and then put him on television to confess to accepting bribes.
And in just the past few days in Gansu Province, independent candidates for local People’s Congresses, like Qu Mingxue (瞿明学), have been detained on criminal charges of “sabotaging elections.”
It wasn’t long ago, back in the heyday of Weibo, that everyone was talking about how the village elections in Wukan and the appearance of independent People’s Congress candidates were hopeful signs for grassroots democracy and politics in China. Back then, both media and netizens placed considerable hope in these phenomena. But a short five years later, we’re once again in an “election year” and the situation looks as bleak as ever.
High Hopes for Grassroots Democracy
After 1989, China found itself in a deep freeze as far as political participation was concerned. As radical transformation became impossible, and what came to replace it after Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” in 1992 were various visions of gradual change premised on the spread of market forces in China.
Entering the 21st century, China joined the WTO and successfully held the Beijing Olympics. Economic development went relatively smoothly, leading to the rapid formation of new social strata. At the same time, the authorities targeted particular opposition groups with continuous repression and severe crackdowns. In this atmosphere, there’s been a gradual withering-away of the idea of radical transformation that had guided the tragic movement in 1989. In its place, gradualism has become the new mainstream — even politically correct — discourse.
The main evidence supporting these visions for gradual change have been phenomena like grassroots democracy, legal rights defense, the opening up of discursive space through commercialized media, spaces for online expression, and the development of civil society and NGOs. Grassroots democracy has quite an important place in this discourse. This is because rights defense, the opening of discursive space, and the development of civil society are more facilitative or necessary conditions for political transition, or else serve as substitutes for political participation in certain periods where such participation is difficult or impossible.
Grassroots elections, on the other hand, is the essence of political participation itself; moreover, they can be seen as the true beginning of the gradual political transition made possible by the maturation of those other conditions.
At the end of the 1990s when the Law of Self-Rule by Village Committees (《村委会自治法》) appeared, the prospect of direct elections or use of “write-in ballots” first sparked hopes that grassroots democracy might lead China’s democratic transition. However, the practice of village-level democracy remained within the scope of self-rule and didn’t affect the overall political system. Nevertheless, grassroots democracy at this level has been put under all sorts of control and finds itself breathing what may be its last, dying breath. As Chang Ping (长平) recently wrote in “Wukan: China’s Domestic Experiment with ‘One Country Two Systems’”: “Within the overall dictatorial environment, small-scale democratic elections face all sorts of difficulties and inevitably wind up at a dead end.”
Comparatively speaking, the appearance of independent candidates in township- or county-level people’s congress elections was invested with even greater hope and even seen as a possible transition path. This is because, under China’s current electoral system, it remains possible for members of the public to nominate their own candidates or even to elect a write-in candidate by selecting the box of “other” on the ballot. This is how Yao Lifa (姚立法) got elected in Qianjiang City, Hubei, for example, back in 1998.
Independent candidates are formally allowed under the current system and there is a theoretical chance of ultimately being successful. And when you factor in the new market forces and online modes of communication, it’s possible for regional independent candidates to become known throughout China and even internationally. For these reasons, many people hoped that independent candidacy might serve as a path to broader political participation and, in the process, advance China’s democratic transition. For these same reasons, whether it was at the beginning of the new Hu-Wen regime in 2003 or during the heyday of Weibo, grassroots elections, and especially independent candidates, were seen as the next step and something in which people could invest their hopes for political transition. For a time, more hope seemed to be invested in it than internet expression, participation in public interest causes, and rights-defense activities.
The Uselessness of China’s ‘Elections’
It’s always been open to debate, however, whether or not China’s electoral system can sustain such hopes. For a variety of reasons, mainland Chinese observers often take Taiwan’s transition to democracy as a point of reference. There’s no doubt that elections played quite a significant role in Taiwan’s democratic transition, and for this reason Chinese gradualists never tire of talking about the subject. However, comparing the electoral systems in Taiwan and mainland China, as well as Taiwan’s road to democracy, we can see that it’s much more difficult under China’s electoral system for independent candidates to play the important role of pushing forward this transition.
First of all, the elections in which they compete take place at too low a level. Everyone knows that People’s Congresses at all levels in China are rubber stamps, and Chinese elections are merely decorative to the dictatorship. China’s so-called elections are limited in that no executive offices are chosen through direct elections and even elections for delegates to People’s Congress are restricted to the county and township levels only. Taiwan, on the other hand, had put in place direct elections for county commissioners, and representatives in both county and provincial assemblies in as early as 1954. Starting in the late 1960s, there were competitive elections for some seats of the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan.
Direct elections thus cut across executive and legislative branches and span from the central government down to the local level. It was only because of this that elections were able to have a social influence and promote transition to democracy in Taiwan. And under these circumstances, the officials and legislators who ran for office could form a political core outside of the KMT. Whether it was the 1979 demonstrations by Huang Shin-chieh (黃信介) and other members of the opposition in the Kaohsiung Incident or the formation of the Tangwai Research Association for Public Policy, these independent politicians were able to have an impact and eventually lead to the formation of an opposition party because of Taiwan’s particular electoral system and election practice.
A second difference between Taiwan and mainland China is that many constraints have been placed on China’s electoral system. The essence of dictatorship is total control over society and the elimination of spontaneous political participation. Since China’s electoral system is merely decorative, it was designed from its inception with all sorts of restrictions and mechanisms to limit participation.
So-called independent candidates can only take part in elections for county and township people’s congresses, but even these elections have been painstakingly engineered so that small electoral districts are coordinated with the political structure in order to facilitate control and mobilization. In order to prevent members of the public from nominating their own candidates, an “incubation phase” has been set up to ensure that any unacceptable individuals can be weeded out from the formal list of candidates. Given all of these various measures, it takes a miracle for any candidate who isn’t part of the political system to get elected. This not only considerably dampens enthusiasm to participate; it also means that it’s nothing but a pipe dream to hope that elections will somehow lead to a democratic transition in China.
Finally, we must consider the long interval between elections in China. Because Taiwan holds elections for executive and legislative offices over three levels of government from central to local, contests are frequent and “election season” is always just around the corner. Under Taiwan’s particular form of authoritarian reality, “election season” served to expand political participation and ultimately created favorable conditions for Taiwan’s democratic transition. China’s “decorative” electoral system, on the other hand, only allows for direct election of county and township people’s congress delegates once every five years, meaning that “election season” arrives much less often in China. And considering how much participation is suppressed, this long five-year interval between elections makes it difficult to gather a sustained accumulation of experience.
Altogether, it means that there’s little hope that independent candidacy alone will do much to promote democracy. This is why, from almost the very beginning, those who have advocated for independent candidacy have all made even higher demands for the electoral system.
They expect the electoral system to undergo a number of reforms. First, they want to see direct elections at higher levels of government, including for executive offices. Others want to see the system of village elections expanded to direct elections for government positions at the township level and above. In 1998, 6,000 voters in Buyun Township in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁步云乡), chose the first township head elected through direct vote since 1949. Afterwards, similar experiments were conducted in Shenzhen and other places. This attracted much attention from the media and liberals, but in the end it never led anywhere. In recent years, among the reform proposals Prof. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘) has repeatedly been peddling, county-level direct election reform has been a core proposal.
A Reality Check
Unfortunately, things have gone in precisely the opposite direction from what people had hoped for. The expansion of market forces has led to the emergence of a variety of rights demands and stimulated the desire of new social strata to take part in politics. These new social strata have gravitated toward independent candidates. The craze for independent candidates that appeared on Weibo back in 2011 was based on these socio-economic changes. However, thanks to the political logic in place since 1989, the current system hasn’t changed in any way to accommodate these new demands. Instead, the regime continued to pursue its policies of stability maintenance. The stronger these social forces became, the more rigid the stability-focused regime grew. In this way, Chinese authorities have come to see independent candidacy as a form of protest that must be restricted and suppressed.
The irony is that even when independent candidates have a desire to work inside the existing system, the authorities see them as representing the “other.”
Five years ago, during the online craze for independent candidates, I reminded people that running for office was a form of protest: “Those running for People’s Congress want to broaden political participation in China, but the stability-maintenance regime is focused on using autocratic deterrence and management and repression of society, including the elimination of political participation. Standing for election thus constitutes a direct challenge to the stability-maintenance system and must be suppressed. The fate of people like Liu Ping (刘萍) is proof of this point. I hope that Li Chengpeng and others who want to run as independent People’s Congress candidates will be prepared.”
What happened afterward proved that my judgment was correct: “Under the stability-maintenance system, there will be no hesitation about repressing independent candidates or blocking information about elections.” Such a system can’t even tolerate the presence of an independent candidate as a token of democracy. Given that running as an independent candidate is a form of protest, it will inevitably meet with even greater repression. The criminal detention of Qu Mingxue and others demonstrates this escalating repression. Of course it also demonstrates further that any hope of using independent candidacy to further the transition to democracy is unfounded.
But protest is never insignificant. Some people shy away and retreat after having taken part in this form of protest, but others like Liu Ping emerge from their participation in grassroots elections to follow even more resolute paths of protest. In this respect, elections may not be able to change the system, but taking part in them can have a transformative effect on us as people. Once we cast off our false hopes, perhaps our struggle will finally generate some real hope.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
原文：莫之许《独立参选的五年一梦》, translated by China Change.